Carrying On: When Our Athletes with Autism Gain Strength and Confidence

Fall, 2018: my husband Charlie and I are raking leaves while our son, 23 year old Henry, who has autism, runs around aimlessly, showing little interest in the job at hand. We take turns stopping what we are doing each time Henry disappears from our view to chase him down and bring him back to where we are. My mother’s heart aches, just wishing we could work together as a family to get the seasonal job done. As I rake, I fret over whether Henry will ever understand what it means to have a job that needs doing and whether he will ever be able to do his part. Will he ever take responsibility? Will he ever be able to have a real job? What can I do to help him get there? I brush the tears away and just focus on raking.

I’ll be honest, when I started doing Autism Fitness training with Henry, my objective was simply to give him something to do. The days are very long for a young adult with autism who is currently unable to hold a job or otherwise be a “productive” member of society. Having a regular thing to do is important. “Gym” went on the permanent schedule for Mondays and Fridays and became the highlight of our week. Twice a week for over a year now, Henry performs heavy carries in the gym with me. Using the principles of Autism Fitness, I use proper cuing and coaching to gently encourage Henry to carry progressively heavier sandbags. After each carry I praise him and make sure he knows he just did something great. “Look at that! You just carried that heavy sandbag all that way! Nice heavy carry, Henry!” High five. I’m impressed. Henry’s getting stronger. But something else is happening that I’m not quite aware of yet. 

Here’s Henry performing a farmer carry in the gym.

Here’s Henry, Spring 2020, helping his Dad carry a heavy trash can of leaves. He’s choosing to help because he knows he can.

Here’s Henry, about a week later, helping carry this year’s Christmas tree from the yard to its final resting place in the woods. A year and a half ago he would not have done this. I am positive that at the point where he lost his grip, he would have also lost all interest and wandered off. But he didn’t. He picked it back up and finished the job. 

It turns out that the Autism Fitness activities we perform together in the gym aren’t just things to do to pass the time. They just might be the key to building confidence and perseverance in a person with autism, two necessary qualities of a productive human being. 

Perhaps people with autism don’t show initiative because they aren’t aware of what their bodies can do. And how can they be if their bodies aren’t doing things? 

If Henry is used to successfully carrying very heavy things in the gym twice a week, it’s not such a big imposition to ask him to carry something that isn’t that heavy at home. He does it because he knows he can.

Our Autism Fitness exercises are not just something our athletes are doing. The exercises are actually doing something for our athletes. Our athletes are growing not only in strength, but in ability and confidence. That’s why we do what we do.

Carry On!

Mae Lynn

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